Classic Review: “Donuts”-J Dilla (2006, VC)

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(VC stands for vinyl collection meaning this is a part of my vinyl collection)

11 years ago, we lost a legend. It was justifiably shocking in the year 2006 when three days after his 32nd birthday, Stones Throw Records hip-hop producer James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla, lost his battle with his terminal blood disease. He was a producer who made some of the biggest waves in the esoteric hip-hop and rap genres. Working with artists like Common, MF DOOM, and even collaborating on the 2003 album “Champion Sound” with fellow producer/MC Madlib, Dilla was one of the most influential hip-hop artists of all time. In addition, drummer Questlove from The Roots maintained a strong relationship with Dilla throughout his career and even calls Dilla his “hero” [1]. But Dilla was also known for his positivity and humble demeanor, hence why he worked so well with so many different music icons. And this positivity is still securely evident on the cover of J Dilla’s last album of his life “Donuts.” It features Dilla smiling candidly in rapper MED’s 2005 music video “Push.” It was a simple concept but one that Dilla’s mother, nicknamed “Ma Dukes,” said “perfectly captured her son’s spirit” in an interview with Stones Throw [2].

As for the music itself, the album is an impeccable culmination of Dilla’s career work, but assembling the 31-track “Donuts” record was not going to be too easy. In 2002, Dilla was diagnosed with Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura or TTP, a blood disease that only affects 3-4 per million people every year [3] and one that eventually turns fatal. Dilla was still able to record music in good health for years afterwards. In addition to his normal studio albums, he logged in hours upon hours of music that are still posthumously released by other record companies. But in the summer of 2005, he was hospitalized for his TTP. There were multiple episodes where Dilla would experience immense pain from his disease, something he made apparent to fellow producer Karriem Riggins. But there was some impulsion that motivated J Dilla to create a final studio album while he was in the hospital.

He called upon some friends from Stones Throw Records in LA to bring him a Boss SP-303 Sampler and a 45 rpm record player so he could create a compilation of instrumental rap beats with his signature sampling style of music making. While hospitalized, J Dilla produced 29 of the 31 songs on “Donuts.” Once finally put together, the album was released on J Dilla’s final birthday, February 7th, 2006. Dilla died three days later. Ever since then, the album has been virtually unanimously known as Dilla’s finest work.

With a track listing containing 31 songs with no lyrics whatsoever, Donuts was made easy on the listener by Dilla who made each track very brief, constituting a 43-minute record. And although the tracks are minimal, the elements are maximal.

When debating with my brother about whether the greatest instrumental album of all time was “Donuts” or “Endtroducing” by DJ Shadow, I tried to explain how it may be the ramifications of each of the albums that causes them to have such widespread critical acclaim. For “Endtroducing,” I based my argument around the concept of time, how no one around the year it was released (1996) was as innovative as DJ Shadow was with his production style given the more primitive technology he was left to use. I also added that its acclaim also stems from critics’ disdain for the hip-hop production of the mid 2010s, an era where a teenager can craft a palatable beat in 15 minutes.

I then argued that “Donuts” received much of its acclaim from the miraculous story surrounding its manifestation and the legacy that would be left by J Dilla in the years following his death. I use this as justification for the fact that Pitchfork Media gave “Donuts” a 7.9/10 upon first listen [4] but then a perfect 10 for the album’s reissue in 2013 [5].

My brother’s rebuttal mentioned that the production of artists like J Dilla, DJ Shadow, or any instrumental hip-hop artist, for that matter, is the intense layering of samples throughout their records.

“It can be hard to review upon first listen because there’s a million things happening at once,” he said.

This got me thinking seriously about I would evaluate “Donuts” each time I listened to it. I already enjoyed the album incredibly and thought that it was deserving of all the acclaim it received but still had that idea of “It’s only good because of the story” looping in my head.

What I learned is that my brother was right. There’s a million things happening in every track, like in every hip-hop track. But what sets Dilla’s work apart from others is his utilization of every element of his samples.

Dilla does not drown his tracks with overwhelming production. Instead, he preserves the samples such that the beat he creates does not deviate from the source. He supplements his tracks with beats instead of smothering the original sample like today’s dubstep artists do.

That being said, his samples are not just supplements either. They are the cornerstone of this album. Now, this is not to say that he is only successful from his sampling because his greatness in production is highly pronounced on his other work. “Donuts” is this happy medium of eclectic sampling and Dilla’s stellar production.

To talk about certain songs that prove this perfect blend between new creations and musical repurposing, we have to start with two tracks that flow into each other so well; “Light My Fire” and “The New.” The fourth and fifth tracks of “Donuts” are not only engaging but the samples are easily identifiable with the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and Beastie Boys’ “The New Style.”

Of course, not all the samples constituting the album are identifiable, but J Dilla hits the spot with his perfect blend of self-produced beats to accompany the preserved samples he adds. In doing this, he also experiments and enters a realm of production not evidenced on his albums “Champion Sound” and “Welcome to Detroit.”

We have classic hip-hop-inspired beats like “Gobstopper” with its glaring horns and “Dilla says go.” But other beats lie outside of that vernacular. We have slow beats like “One for Ghost” (a beat which Ghostface Killah would eventually rap over on his song “Whip you with that Strap” [6]) and fast bangers like “Lightworks” and “Light my Fire.”

But if there’s anything that may jerk listener’s tears, it’s the raw sentimentality of many of the songs. Many of the songs feature old soul samples which give them this sentimental feel which fits especially well given Dilla’s conditions under which “Donuts” was produced. Highlights of the album include tracks like “U-Love,” “Bye” and “Time: The Donut of Love.”

Since the album’s release, J Dilla’s stashed recordings, which include thousands of tracks, are still being released today, most recently his “Ma Dukes Collection” released in late 2016. But there were several artists who repurposed and remixed tracks from “Donuts” to honor Dilla. Nas used the beat “Gobstopper” on his song “The Season” [7], producer Flying Lotus remixed the song “Lightworks” [8], and Dilla’s beat “Bye” was repurposed into the song “So Far To Go” [9] (a track which has now become Dilla’s most famous song) from his posthumous album “The Shining,” a compilation album of Dilla’s beats rapped and sung over by names like D’Angelo, Common, Busta Rhymes, and MED.

Perhaps the most emotional tribute to J Dilla, however, was done by The Roots. The aforementioned Questlove quote was not a farce, as Quest had worked with Dilla for years and was touched by Dilla’s physical condition and untimely death. The song The Roots created was the 8-minute “Can’t Stop This” [10] which sampled “Time: The Donut of Love.” And while the rap bars are particularly meaningful, I find the most emotionally gripping moment of the song to be the beginning in which a voicemail message by an unnamed member of the Roots containing perhaps a line which resonates with all fans of J Dilla today; “And although I’m happy he’s no longer in the pain he’d been recently feelin’, I’m crushed by the pain of his absence.”

To read the story behind the iconic “Donuts” album cover, click the link here:

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